Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who reportedly controls the mercenaries responsible for attacking U.S. and allied troops last month in Syria, claimed to have "secured permission" from the Kremlin prior to launching its attack on U.S. troops, according to U.S. intelligence from late January.
Citing intercepted communications in US intelligence reports, The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Prigozhin told a senior Syrian official he had "secured permission" from a Russian minister to carry out a "fast and strong" initiative in early February.
The Kremlin has seemingly become emboldened in the face of public timidity by U.S. President Donald Trump.
Prigozhin made front-page headlines last week when he was indicted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on charges of bankrolling and guiding a long-running Russian scheme to conduct “information warfare” during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
He is known to have close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, forged when he was a restaurateur in St. Petersburg and expanded through what became Prigozhin’s wide-ranging business empire, including extensive contracts with Russia’s Defense Ministry.
The Post said U.S. intelligence officials believe Prigozhin "almost certainly" commands the Russian mercenaries in Syria, who are employed by the private military contractor Wagner.
To date, all relevant parties have been relatively quiet on the attack; Pentagon officials have released few details, and the Kremlin has been inconsistent in its accounts.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive issue, described the episode as “worrisome.” The official added that “it’s striking how the Russians themselves have been quick to distance themselves” from what he described as an operation “under Syrian command and in response to Syrian directive.”
“I think [the Russians] realize just how damaging it could be to any further cooperation,” the official said.
Also gleaned from January's intercepted intelligence was Prigozhin's involvement in orchestrating the attack, which he discussed with Minister of Presidential Affairs Mansour Fadlallah Azzam and other Syrian officials.
In a Jan. 24 exchange, Prigozhin said he had secured permission from an unspecified Russian minister the day before to move forward with a “fast and strong” initiative and was awaiting a decision by the Syrian government.
On Jan. 30, Prigozhin “indicated he had a ‘good surprise’ ” for Assad “that would come between 6 and 9 February.” According to one intelligence report, he also was assured by Azzam that he would be paid for his work.
Prigozhin also owns a company called Evro Polis, which according to the U.S. Treasury Department "has contracted with the Government of Syria to protect Syrian oil fields in exchange for a 25 percent share in oil and gas production from the fields."
The use of Wagner for operations such as the one in early February shows how integral private mercenary groups are to the Russian military effort in Syria and elsewhere, while giving the Kremlin “a thin patina of deniability,” said Michael Carpenter, a former Pentagon and White House official who worked on Russia policy in the Obama administration.
“More importantly,” he said, “it allows Russian forces to take on the U.S.-backed SDF in a way that regular Russian forces wouldn’t dare do for fear of escalation.”